I read two things recently. One was A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, available in all good bookstores, and quite possibly most less-good ones. The other was an erotic/bdsm short story, available on the internet (to which I’ll link you if you message me.)
The similarities interested me. In Huxley’s dystopia, the global society is insulated from
negative emotions by an overwhelming cultural pressure, which includes Pavlovian response training, hugely hedonistic mores and license, and ‘soma’, a fictional opiate distributed by the government and taken by anyone who feels negative thoughts coming on. In the erotica, a schoolgirl who is bullied and sexually blackmailed visits a (very evil) hypnotist, who, rather than helping her in a traditional manner, ‘programmes’ her into enjoying her predicament, thus (to the author and hypnotist) resolving the problem.
The differences are marked. Whereas the schoolgirl has no idea what the hypnotist is doing, and perhaps members of Huxley’s lower castes are genetically engineered to be unable to appreciate their situation, the higher castes (Alpha-plus, Alpha-minus, possibly Betas) are explicitly aware of the lengths they and their society go to in order to escape emotion. Indeed, the stories main characters (a disillusioned Alpha, ‘Marx’, and a non-indoctrinated savage, ‘John’) spend much of their time considering the willful lack of emotion, and its quasi-moral implications.
Quasi-moral implications, and choice, interest me rather a lot. See, when Bernard Marx, having critically examined his culture, actively decides to embrace soma, orgies and fame (rather than go ‘cold turkey’ or live as a savage) he is making an existential choice. Now, existentialism is quite a broad topic, and the summary/interpretation I give here is open to massive and valid criticism, and the conclusions I draw are certainly based on this fallible model, but…oh well. Existentialism (generally) considers conventional moralities and religions as either baseless or false. It emphasises personal responsibility in understanding, studying and interpreting various ‘modes of living’, and as such, forces the thinker to commit to a certain belief structure, in full knowledge of competing and otherwise-equally-valid structures. It requires the individual to commit to valuing a certain path, for their own reasons, in the knowledge of uncertainty, of absurdity and of outside-the-individual nihilism.
Various Big Names come to different conclusions regarding this choice. Kierkegaard is all about Christianity, his doubt of the church, his anguish at believing in a God who ordered Abraham to sacrifice his own son Isaac. He accepted that one’s belief choice was an ultimate freedom, and that to commit to Christianity was both terrifying, and valid. Indeed, he endorsed a ‘leap of faith’ after a period of self- and world-examination.
Nietzsche, by contrast, rejected Christian morality
entirely. By denying objective truth he unveiled the threat of nihilism (a world without values), and suggested Free Spirits/New Philosophers/Advanced Men should move beyond the moral constraints of society, overcoming their own indoctrinated perspectives and creating their own value systems. He’s not especially helpful on how one does this, but suggests great potential value in self-overcoming, exerting one’s will (over others and oneself), art, music and play*.
Others come to differing conclusions, but from Sartre to Heidegger to Marcel to de Beauvoir to Kafka to Camus, all feature a healthy dose of ‘looking at your society from an abstract/critical perspective’ and most, ‘defining your own values’. Bonza.
Where does that leave us? Oh yes.
You have a personal responsibility to be an existentialist.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand it’s a scale. I understand that virtually all people have *at some point* questioned their situation to some degree, and that the sceptical project I seem to be endorsing encapsulates a virtually infinite field of questioning and doubting. I’m also Painfully aware how poor an example I myself am of this, in that I’m smarmily critical of most values and positions, but filled with fear and trembling when I consider the few left to me. But that position (especially at a sprightly 22) feels a good deal more honest.
Quite a lot of people, to a greater-or-lesser extent, already live by this. Christians who are fully cognisant of other belief systems, of the contradictions and questionable validity of the Bible, who understand the basics of science and concede the possibility that the Pope isn’t literally infallible, but choose Jesus, fall into this category**. Muslims who are aware of the historical question marks surrounding the origins of Muhammad, have read about evidence suggesting there used to be conflicting versions of the Koran, and that the Hadith seem to have only come about hundreds of years after The Prophet’s death, yet still commit to Islam, are the same.** So too are atheists who, having rejected ‘faith’, have done a decent amount of meta-ethical and ethical research, and cherish ideals other than the absence of a God.
And good for them. Because they are like the Alpha Pluses. They, at least, are aware of the pill they are taking. The vast majority of people, however, who happily bumble through life believing in the objective truth of their faith, or simply ‘not caring’ and living vaguely postmodern lives without much thought as to why and how carpet-bombing or rape are bad, are no better-off than the hypnotised girl. They might be accepting or even valuing actions and people who, after examination, they’d rather hate***.
*I’m sure someone more qualified has written extensively on this, but in my ignorance, I’ll briefly criticise Freddy’s position. The problem is, his writings on ‘Perspectivism’ (that everyone’s views, moral or otherwise, as basically just the products of the language, society and mores they grew up in [see also: Foucault, Episteme]) are very convincing. Too convincing really, since, even as the reader acknowledges Nietzsche’s call for philosophers to examine and overcome their own perspectives, one cannot help but think he is a product of his own. He’s shown the world is so subjective that his own writings become self-referentially inconsistent. Why value music, art, willpower etc any more than (say) croquet, surrender and dental floss? Silly German.
**Although it tends to be my hope that religious people who’ve thought/read that much either ‘come out’ or support a liberal brand of their faith, for reasons demonstrated in this post.
***As I intend to expand on soon, this Massively applies to our political positions too. A lot of things are in competition for the title of ‘what makes me most irate’, but voting for a party based on lazy caricatures, prejudices and local/familial tradition is certainly a contender.